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Neues Museum by David Chipperfield Architects, Berlin, Germany

David Chipperfield aims to retain the spirit of the ruin as he merges new and in his Neues Museum restoration. Photography by Dennis Golbert

There’s an obvious attraction to David Chipperfield’s Neues Museum. At a time when we have been sated with the glittering object, the spectacular form, the rhetoric of newness and the icon, here is a work of patience, time and leaving alone. This might explain why it is already fêted by critics, politicians and the Berlin public, even though it is empty of the objects it was built to serve. Its completion feels like one of those moments when a museum building, like the Pompidou Centre or the Guggenheim Bilbao, has caught a collective mood.

The Neues Museum was completed in 1855, bombed in 1943 and 1945, and then left to rot until restoration started (and then stopped again) in 1989. Chipperfield’s big idea was to retain the spirit of the ruin he found. It was a paradoxical operation, to preserve the character of decay in the fixed environment that museums require. His aim was not ‘demonstration of damage, but of the beauty that was there’.

His approach was different to that of other architects faced with adapting ruins. He did not, for example, go the way of Norman Foster at the Reichstag (AR July 1999), where pristine newness is simply juxtaposed with scumbled history. Rather, Chipperfield (working with restoration architect Julian Harrap), makes whole spaces out of a mixture of the preserved and the repaired.

He does so room by room and surface by surface, responding to the different conditions found in each. At one end of the spectrum there’s fabric found almost intact, where slightly battered decoration is stabilised; at the other are wholly new rooms. In between are rooms defined by fragments of plaster, distressed but recognisable classical columns and vaults of hollow clay pots whose tapioca patterns were never intended to be seen, but have a certain beauty.

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In these spaces the architects had to judge when the new work should announce its newness, and when to merge with the found, as with the 30,000 clay pots that were made (by one man over three years) to go alongside the originals. Their judgment included an appreciation of the context and role of each space: thus the great staircase, which follows the form but not the detail of the stair it reinstates, is the most emphatic of the new interventions, fitting its role as the public centre of the museum. In places where the exhibits will be the centre of attention, the architecture becomes less prominent.

This approach is an impressive professional achievement. To pursue the intangible over many years, through the politics and pressures of a building project, without losing its essence, is difficult. Usually architects subjugate such pressures with the pursuit of a fixed object or a dominant style but here hundreds of people had to be brought in to an elusive concept.

Architecturally, the result is a series of halls into which critics and some of the public have been invited to roam, like people exploring a vast house inherited from an unknown uncle. Here, scorched columns, up to a century-and-a-half old, seem to acquire a greater antiquity. As we expect the classical to be ruined, they seem more authentic than they would have done when pristine.

There is an overall illusion of talc-like softness, a chalky quality to the illumination, and a dreaminess. Its brick construction reveals a lightness that the original architecture, wanting to look all stone, concealed.

Things that would once have been different from each other - veined marble, clay pots, Nile scenes, Pompeiian decoration, mosaic - are unified by the common quality of arrested decay. The place is much more interesting than it would have been if never bombed, in which case it would, like other museums, have been another accumulation of interior design decisions.

Now the Neues Museum creates reverberations of different degrees of time. These include the time of its original construction, revealed by the partial stripping of surfaces. Also that of its subsequent use, bombing, erosion by weather and finally, its slow restoration. There is the Greco-Roman time to which its original classical architecture refers, and there will be the time of its Egyptian and other exhibits, and the quicker time of its living visitors. The place is a composite of human and natural actions, some violent, some exquisite, some touching, some ordinary.

There are very few bum notes, although I don’t get Chipperfield’s faith in tall square pillars, which appear here and there. They let down the subtlety of the rest. Traps have been avoided, such as creating a theme park of destruction, or a string of anecdotes. The scraps of plaster and scoured columns are never allowed to become the main story.

What I am describing is in fact architecture. The Neues Museum might seem like a special case, and old buildings bring their privileges such as access to craftsmanship that is taboo in new work. But the elements of Chipperfield’s approach are the making of spaces, the appreciation of whatever is found, and a view of the architect’s work as a series of actions that intersect with those made previously on a site, and those to be made in the future. Such attitudes are also applicable to wholly new buildings, whatever the location.

Chipperfield’s Neues Museum is not, after all, about reticence or self-denial. It is a strong and distinctive idea about a place, made real. It should not then be seen as a precursor of a new modesty, or as the opposite of all the virtuoso architecture of recent years. What is special about it, and what it would be good to see more of, is the fluidity, the reciprocity to things outside the architect’s own brain, that go with its strength of purpose.

Neus Museum

Architect David Chipperfield Architects, London

Restoration architect Julian Harrap Architects

Structural engineer Ingenieurgruppe Bauen

Services engineer Jaeger, Mornhinweg

Lighting consultant Kardoff

Landscape architect Levin Monsigny

Exhibition design Michele de Lucchi

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